Introductory Remarks, from A Therapist’s Take on Retirement, 1998

Recently I had a thirty-year-old, married (one year) and soon to be father say to me in treatment that it was important for him to start saving now; that, especially as a therapist, I must know how essential it is if not critical to do so; that, indeed, I must have money invested in mutual funds, etc.

What if we accept his premise as absolutely dead-on, said with conviction. And, further, what if we accept the underpinnings of his worldview, that essentially life flows in a bell-shaped curve; that adversity is intermittent, at best; that at a certain time in this best of all possible worlds he will reap a windfall for his children’s college educations, his retirement, whatever.

I did not disabuse him of his notions except to challenge quietly his implicit concept of life, which views it as progressive, optimistic, stirred, not shaken, as a Bond martini.

He was certain what to do about his financial status. However, here he was, in session, somewhat blind to the disarray in his emotional life. Ecce, homo!

if you are a good and not indifferent therapist, I feel you are a stranger in a strange land, marginalized, a majority of one. Your therapeutic task is not to help the client adapt and adopt what society says is so — or true. Your task is to assist the client in arriving at essential self-truths which are self-evident. One does not condition clients to adjust — adjust to what?

In very basic terms, if my client does not urinate in the gutter, beat his wife and child, he is a decent citizen. To urge him to vote, to respect his elders, to be buy Made in America is to condition him. Society at large is a master of this manipulation. I need not add to it.

Some of us manage the daily aspects of life — budgets, planning, college for our kids, terrifically well. Some of us move through life in sloppy fashion, never fully dressed for the occasion. Some of us are kind and good “losers”; some of us are relentlessly avaricious and aggressive “winners.” Some of us never find financial peace; some of us make magazine covers at the age of 45, retired with $1,000,000 in investments. Some of us in our late sixties work as domestics, hard work, with no idea of retiurement because it is not a reality.

i find it ironic, so human, that the effort we give to financial planning — time, investments, risk levels, holding on for the short and long term, diversification of assets, saving diligently are some of the very skills required for living life — profoundly.

Few of us give as much energy to what we psychologically, spiritually and emotionally need as we do when we sense we are financially unprepared.

The irony is sharper still. Most of us are unprepared for living until the very hour we die. We give little organized thought — awareness, if you will — to our mortality. We are obsessed with peripherals — and false needs.

I assume if one is living not well, but living meaningfully in western society, that the economics of it will follow.

So, I argue that we are in denial. Yes, go ahead and play and invest. And do it wisely and creatively so, without financial envy of others and where they — and you — are in the rat race. However, don’t delude yourself. Financial planning, for some, is a lame substitute for the real issues involved in retirment. Organize your life financially and it becomes an attribute, and no more than that.

I once worked with a survivor who had fled to the States in the late forties. She had worked in a forced labor camp and through dint of will and emotional stamina managed to get out of Nazi Germany. All her life (she was seventy-five) she worked in department stores, quite diligently I am sure; her husband was a refugee as well and he too did not make much.

She stopped work and devoted her time to her one daughter and later on her adored grandchild. She lived  in an apartment in Forest Hills, Queens, and occasionally took trips when she could afford it with her husband. When I first saw her she was facing her husband’s Alzheimer’s disease, trying to cope with it. We worked together for about a year and a relationship formed. I enjoyed her feistiness, her joy of living in spite of her own economic hardships, her self-managing of physical ailments, which were not inconsiderable. She adored the Statue of Liberty, a reminder of her voyage here. And she valued life.

In that entire year not once, I repeat, not once, did she dwell for any considerable amount of time on what she did not have financially. Quite grounded, she dwelt on the  here and now.

I left for a brief vacation, catching sight of her on Queens Boulevard walking that brisk but aged stride of hers. I never saw her again. Her daughter called to tell me she had died of a heart attack. In fact, we spent more time talking in session about her troubling arthritis. The heart attack was a “surprise.”

When I think of her, as I am writing now, I celebrate her love of life, of husband, of daughter, of grandchild. I celebrate her grand sense of humor, and I remember the richness of her laughter, which was hearty. I don’t know if she left an estate, probably not. What she did leave was a personal estate, riches of another kind. For me, as a person, as her therapist, she left a deposit in me. She gave me of her self. By her life, her presence, her modest but really immodest example, she confirmed what I am sharing with you.

So, order your life so that when you come to your end those about you will have the dearest memories of a life well-lived and expressed, a life well invested solely in the potential and worth of others.

So, order your life so that probate is only the mechanics dealing with one of life’s necessary realities, but not the indelible memory of a significant other.

Perhaps the best inheritance you can give to close ones is the way in which you lived, as opposed to how well you saved and planned.

We cannot have it all, however un-American, during life, after life. What is obtainable is the intangible, if worked at — the imprint, the impression you make on others, perhaps what we mean as the soul. In a corporate state this has no value. So, choose.

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